Prepare for Success Next Year by Reviewing and Reflecting This Year

How was your 2015?  Did you achieve your goals and make progress in the ways you envisioned twelve months ago?  Were there areas in life where you struggled or found distraction?  If your year was anything like mine, you had a wide variety of experiences ranging from fantastic victories to complete failures, and touching upon all varieties of outcomes in between.  Do you know why certain projects went well and why others failed?  Have you set aside any time at year’s end to try and understand the difference?  Have you thought about what decisions you need to make and actions you need to take to achieve the greater levels of success you have in mind?  You should.

At the end of every year, I take the last week or two to review the past year, and think deeply about what I want for the next year.  Achieving the successful outcomes you have in mind for the future requires making time to review your accomplishments against your goals.   It also requires you to set clear and compelling goals going forward.  This is easy to say but requires real and dedicated thought to accomplish.  Why?  Because setting clear and compelling goals requires you to understand what you really want.

This is my process for ending the year positively with a clear understanding of where I am, how I got here, and where I’m headed next.

Reflect on the Past Year’s Accomplishments

The first step in an annual review is to sit down and reflect on the year’s accomplishments.  This takes real time to do properly, because chances are that you’ve done a lot over the past twelve months.  I start with a review of my client-based practice.  I review my year’s calendar, project list, and task list for all of the client projects that I’ve completed, as well as those that remain open at year end.  I consider outcome, revenue, speed to completion, efficiency, and client satisfaction.  I identify key decision moments in each project, and ask myself if the outcomes of those decisions were consistent with or different than my predictions.  I make a list of the successes I had.  I repeat then repeat this exercise for the management of my business, my personal goals, financial goals, and family goals.

Reviewing experiences leads to insight, and this exercise will let you identify the principles and habits that led to success.

Be Honest about Failures, and then Move on

My year wasn’t all success.  I bet yours wasn’t either.  I find it important to think honestly about the places where I didn’t achieve my goals, made bad decisions, or otherwise experienced a bad outcome.  The point here is not to wallow.  Just as with accomplishments, a review of negative experiences will create insight and let you create new habits to strengthen these problem areas as you move forward.  Just as important as identifying failures, though, is moving on after you’ve found insight.  The goal of this entire process is to put you in the right frame of mind to move forward and achieve, not to end the year caught in negative traps.

Express Gratitude

I ask myself two questions after reviewing accomplishments and failures.  First, what am I thankful for this year?  Second, what do I want to be thankful for at this same time next year?

This might be the most important step in the process of reflection.  Regular expression of gratitude is shown to improve relationships, physical health, psychological health, self-esteem, and mental fortitude.  Write down a list of the things you’re thankful for.  I guarantee you’ll be in a better frame of mind when you finish the list.  And you’ll probably have a clearer understanding of what’s truly important to you.

Cut Excesses

Time is our most important resource because it is nonrenewable.  You’ll never get this moment back again.  The key to being productive, fulfilled, and rested is to avoid wasting your time on things that don’t matter and things that you don’t care about.  More difficult to realize is that it also means avoid investing your time in things you do care about, but which are not delivering the results you need or want.  Give some careful thought in this process about whether there are projects or engagements you should cut from your life.  Your decision-making heuristic for projects should be “Hell, yes!” or “No.”  Do not invest yourself in projects that you are 51% excited about.

Set Compelling Goals

Specific goal setting is the key to achieving the results you want.  I think this is where most people encounter the greatest difficulty in the process of finding happiness and success.  It’s not enough to set a vague, conclusory goal, such as “I want to be financially independent,” or “I want to get in shape.”  These are fine visions of a life, but they will not serve you as a goal because they are not specific.  They do not tell you what you need to do each day to succeed.  Instead of, “I want to get in shape,” your goal might be, “I will join a health club and exercise three times each week before work.”  Keep your goals specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.

To succeed in this goal setting process, I think hard about the most important values I want to focus on for the coming year.  This lets me visualize the way in which I will interact with the world, my work, and my family.  For example, in 2016, I intend to value presence, mindfulness, health, decisiveness, curiosity, and honesty.  These values form the frame of mindset for the year.

I then look at my top three targets in life, and how I will get closer to them.  These include goals for family and personal relationships, health, and intellectual work.  I then consider what my top three goals are for the next three years.  These goals are more specific and granular than my life targets.

Break it Down

It is awfully hard to wake up each morning and decide what your important tasks are if you only have an annual goal.  Success requires breaking down your annual goals into manageable, measurable, and specific quarterly or monthly goals.  If you do the type of big picture framing described above, it becomes much easier to set compelling and measurable goals for the next calendar year.  Sit down and chart out the year.  What does each season look like?  What does each quarter of the year feel like?  What are the must-do actions that you must take each month, week, and day to keep you on course for the year?  These goals then become the framework for your weekly, monthly, and quarterly reviews as the year goes on (more on that process another day).

Identify New Ideas

It’s a new year.  You’re not limited to your existing project list.  Brainstorm about new ideas. Incorporate them into your goals and plans.  Pick one new habit for the year that you’ll incorporate.

Schedule the Year

How often do you hear someone at the office say, “I really need a vacation but I don’t have time.”  How often do you say the same thing.  Do you know why you don’t have time for vacation?  Because you never set aside the time.  Do it now.  Schedule your year, including time for vacations, reflection, quarterly and annual reviews.  Consider adding a brainstorming day each quarter or “Think Week,” where you shut off all outside inputs and focus on reading, considering new ideas, and fostering creativity for your business.  Think you’re too busy?  Bill Gates makes time for it, you can too.

Unplug

This process takes me about a week.  Some people can get it done in a day, but it will take time.  It will also take effort and hard work.  When you’re done, unplug from it all.  You should finish the process revitalized, happy about achievements, grateful for much in your life, and excited to begin again.  So take some time to appreciate that feeling.  I take the last week of the year off to enjoy family and rest.

I hope this encourages you to do some thinking and reviewing this holiday season.  It’s an extremely valuable process in achieving what matters most to you next year.

Creating a To-Do List that Actually Does Something for You

My father told me years ago, “to be conscientious about one thing only means that you are ignoring many other things.”

I am sharing in this post the tool that I recently discovered that has made more difference in writing a daily to-do list that is effective in both (1) knocking items off my list of action items, and (2) ensuring that the action items completed are balanced across multiple long-term goals.  That tool is Peter Bregman’s six-box to-do list.

Over the course of my career, I have tried many, many different systems for to-do lists.  I have tried notebooks, index cards, Getting Things Done (“GTD”), a dozen different task list apps on my phone and computer.  After about 15 years of practicing law, I settled in large part on GTD in a paper notebook, because the “capture it all” and “context for every item” aspects were invaluable to me.  For those who are not familiar with the details of David Allen’s GTD system, the system depends upon a few pillars.  First, all information in your life needs to be collected.  This represents to-dos, calendar appointments, projects, and items you have delegated or are waiting on.

Once items are collected in the GTD system, they are categorized and organized into contexts.  First, what is the item?  Is it a project, an appointment, a task, or an item for which you are awaiting a response?  Second, for whom is the item to be completed, or with whom are you working?  Is it for your business partner, your associate, your assistant, your wife, your child?  Third, when do you need to complete it?  Now, soon, later, or someday, or are you waiting on it?  From these data points, you can construct a list each for projects, action items, and waiting on items.  For action items, you will have separate lists for each area of responsibility in your life: office, computer, errands, home, wife, etc.  These categories are completely subject to your discretion.  Once up and running, you will have a calendar for appointments, and a series of lists in GTD.

I have run a GTD system for a number of years.  But I still kept running in to the same key problem. First, with a project list in the dozens, and action item list in the hundreds, I struggled with prioritization.  I usually can complete approximately 4-6 important items per day.  If I have 40 items of high priority, which items win out?  What criteria can I use to make that choice?  How do I ensure that the work I focus on advances the goals that are important to me?

I made two changes during this past quarter that have drastically helped with this problem.  The first, is that I abandoned my paper notebook GTD system and moved it to Evernote.  Evernote provides a very large advantage over paper: it is searchable and sortable.  Each day, I can search and sort my action items in Evernote by priority and context.

This brings us to Bregman’s simple and ingenious six-box to-do list.  Given the overwhelming amount and complexity of the information in my Evernote GTD system, I needed a tool that would allow me to review my high-priority action items, and then decide what to do every day.  Bregman’s blueprint solved this problem for me.  Bregman advocates that each of us needs to spend time periodically determining what our top five long term goals are.  His suggestion is then that we should spend 95% of our time focusing on work that advances those goals.  The goals are up to you – a particular project, business development, writing a novel, finishing an advanced degree, learning Finnish – you are the master of your goal list.  The point is that if you have an important goal, you need to ensure that you are doing work each day towards those goals.

Bregman’s template requires you to divide an index card into six boxes.  The first five boxes are for each of your five long-term goals.  The last box is for “the other 5%.”  When I adopted this system, the five goals I had were: (1) work for existing legal cases; (2) obtaining and developing new legal cases; (3) researching and promoting my ideas; (4) presence for my family; and (5) taking care of myself.

Each morning, I open up Evernote, and I search for all tagged notes with high priority.  From those, I search across my context tags (@work, @calls, @wife, @home, @errands), to make sure that I understand my potential priorities across all spheres of my life.  I then select two or three items from my action item list for each of my five goals.   A sample list looks something like this:

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This allows me to make sure that as I accomplish my key 4-6 items per day, that I am working across multiple goals.  It forces me to do work on existing cases, while also developing new business, and while also protecting my time to work on research and writing.

The most important thing that this six-box list has done for me, though, is to create a visual cue to remember that the very most important things in life are things that can easily be squeezed out if you do not protect the time to do them.  Time with family, being present for your spouse and children, exercise, meditation, and new learning are all spheres of life that too often are ignored in favor of traditional “work.”  By identifying my specific goals across various areas of life, I have found that this system allows me to be both productive, but also fulfilled in all aspects of life that I have determined matter to me the most.

My father was right.  In being conscientious about one thing, you do ignore many other things.  The trick is to ensure that you do not ignore any part of your life that matters to you, and conversely, that you do not spend time on things that do not advance your goals, to the detriment of your goals.